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One Way to Collaborate: Bargain Frequently

Several districts spotlighted during breakout sessions at the labor-management conference here in Denver bargain frequently, on the order of once a month or more.

Doesn't that sound like fun!

In seriousness, it's interesting to hear how often these superintendents, formally or informally, meet with the leaders of their teachers' unions to troubleshoot and tweak policy as needed.

Douglas County, Colo., officials meet on a monthly basis and update their contract a couple of times a year in a process called "living bargaining," according to the teachers' union president, Brenda Smith. The constant meetings are one of the reasons that district, union, and school board are moving ahead to update the district's 1993 pay-for-performance plan to align to a new teacher-evaluation system now being developed.

"When we finish this [plan], it won't be perfect, and that's what's great about having teachers at the table," said Dan Gerken, the vice president of the Douglas County school board. "They'll help us get it right."

This is not exactly the norm in labor relationships, where contracts are negotiated every two to five years, if not longer. Most contracts do have provisions called "openers" that allow for the parties to reopen bargaining if, for instance, there's a big decline in local revenue and changes need to be made, and a number of districts supplement contracts with memorandums of understanding. But it's less common to have these kinds of ongoing formal meetings to set policy.

In Helena, Mont., bargaining teams meet all year round and take note of changes they want to make in the contract. At the end of the year, the collection of changes is put to teachers for formal ratification.

"We were thinking, 'What about these things we never get to [in bargaining]? Do we have to wait two years to get to them again?' " recalled Larry Nielsen, a field consultant for the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers and a former president of the Helena union.

The "ongoing bargaining" relationship involves a subset of the negotiations team, and the process began in the early 2000s, when the district started a new kind of salary schedule.

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